The Traumatized Brain: Discover 3 Ideas that Will Change How You Work With Clients

by Kimberly on November 5, 2009 · 3 comments

If you are a music therapist, you probably know that our national conference is next week in San Diego (Yay!). This will be a time for us to learn, meet-and-greet, and get inspired being around like-minded people. There are hundreds of presentations and so many people to connect with–I can’t wait!!!

On Saturday November 14, I’ll be giving a presentation titled “The Traumatized Brain: Understanding the Science Behind Trauma and Why Music Works.” I’ve given a similar talk before, but I’m completely changing it because of a training I attended earlier this fall. I’ve been working hard on it this week, so thought I’d take this opportunity to share the basic gist with you.

Many of you know that my very first contract was to develop a music therapy program at the Namaqua Center, a treatment facility for abused and neglected children. It’s a population I had no experience with. So I’ve spent mBusiness people in bar.uch of the past 4.5 years reading and participating in workshops, learning as much as I can. And since I enjoy teaching, I thought I’d help others jump-start the process by sharing what I’ve learned.

The essential idea is that I am not there to “fix their behaviors.” The “problem” behaviors these children show–aggression, yelling, cursing, hyperactivity, impulsivity–are telling me that something is wrong. So my first task is to understand what’s really happening for these children. What are their behaviors telling me?

There’s a three-prong approach to understanding what’s wrong. All three of these approaches are rooted in neurodevelopment and an understanding that the trauma they experienced affected how their brains developed. The abnormal, or absent, development that has occurred interferes with their ability to function:

  1. Sensory Approach. Our sensory systems develop in a sequential manner. For trauma-influenced children, many of their basic senses (auditory, visual, taste, tactile, vestibular, proprioceptive) have not developed appropriately. They may be hyper-sensitive (it’s too much) or hypo-sensitive (it’s not enough) to certain sensory information. Some children need to wear headphones during our sessions because the volume is too loud. Others need objects to squeeze and play with; having that tactile stimulation helps them focus.
  2. Stress Response. Our most basic biological need is to survive and procreate. Because of this, our brains and bodies are designed to mobilize when we sense a threat. You may have heard of the stress response–also called “fight, flight, or freeze”–which is how our brains and bodies react to a threat. We are also designed to calm down again after the threat has passed. It’s not good for our bodies to stay in that “fight, flight, or freeze” response. The stress response is adaptive–we need it to survive–but it can develop in a maladaptive way, as it has for most of the children at the Namaqua Center. They were reared in threatening, unsafe, chaotic environments. In order to survive, their bodies developed in a constant state of stress, a constant state of fear. Because of this, the children I work with have very extreme stress responses. They become aggressive or exhibit running behaviors very easily. Many have difficulty sleeping, are impulsive, and struggle in school.
  3. Attachment. Attachment simply means an emotional bond. The first (and most important) emotional bond we ever have is with our primary caregiver(s). A loving, caring, and safe (e.g. “secure”) attachment relationship helps babies learn to trust, develop empathy, self-regulate (e.g. calm down after getting stressed), and be able to learn as adults. Our earliest attachment relationship affects our life-long mental health. Most children at the Namaqua Center did not have a loving, secure attachment relationship–instead, they spent their early years in chaotic, unsafe, abusive, neglectful situations. Because of these early experiences, trauma-influenced children have problems with trust and intimacy, difficulty learning, trouble self-regulating, and difficulty empathizing.

Understanding the underlying issues impacts all aspects of my therapy. I don’t address the “behaviors” these children exhibit. Instead, I help them learn and practice what it feels like to be calm. I help them develop and practice pro-social skills. We provide nurturance during the sessions and use interventions designed to help them feel and “get into” their bodies. We work on basic development milestones–crossing midline and developing focus and attention skills. My music therapy sessions provide structure and predictability in a safe space and the interventions are spaced to “practice” getting aroused (“stressed”) and calming down–they practice self-regulation.

If you are interested in learning more, consider coming to my presentation on the 14th. I will go much more in depth and will provide examples of interventions I use that work.

I also think that this information is not just applicable if you work with trauma-influenced children, but also apply to children with autism and other developmental needs. Many children with special needs show similar behaviors because their development has been impacted in similar ways. The reasons their development is affected are vastly different–but the end result is very similar.

If you won’t be at the AMTA conference, but still want to learn more, I highly recommend the following books. They completely transformed how I view and work with the children at Namaqua:

Ghosts from the Nursery: Tracing the Roots of Violence This book gives a fascinating look at how abuse and neglect impact children. It’s chock full of research, but also easy to follow and understand. (I’ve written a review of the book here.)

The Out-of-Sync Child: Recognizing and Coping with Sensory Processing Disorder, Revised Edition This book provides a research-based approach to understanding sensory integration disorder, but since it’s written with parents in mind, it’s not too jargon-y.


{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Rachel November 6, 2009 at 12:01 pm

Sounds like a fascinating presentation. I can’t wait to hear it next week. Thanks for giving us a little preview!
.-= Rachel´s last blog ..Friday Fave: The Music Therapy Show =-.

Roia November 6, 2009 at 5:56 pm

You described the process very nicely, Kimberly. And I absolutely love “The Out of Sync Child”. It helped me tremendously in understanding the experiences of some of my clients (many of whom are on the autism spectrum).

For the fifteenth time, I’m completely bummed that I won’t be able to go to San Diego. I hope your presentation is fabulously attended! I’m sure people won’t be sorry they came to hear what you have to share. You explain things very clearly.
.-= Roia´s last blog ..Violence in the lives of people with disabilities =-.

Kimberly November 9, 2009 at 2:34 pm

Thank you for your kind words, Roia. I am grateful. I really enjoyed “Out-Of-Sync Child”–in fact, it’s been a couple years and may be time for a refresher read! I am sorry we won’t get to meet at the conference, but I hope we will soon. ~Kimberly

Leave a Comment

CommentLuv badge

Previous post:

Next post: